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Belize 2012 Crime and Safety Report

Western Hemisphere > Belize > Belmopan

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats

Crime has been on the rise in Belize for the past several years. Belize remains a high-crime country due largely to the extremely high murder rate per capita. Belize is officially the sixth most dangerous country in the world with an average of just over 39 homicides per 100,000 residents. Belize has the second highest murder rate in the Caribbean, the third in Central America, and the fifth in the Americas. Belize set new national records for murders in 2009 and 2010. Gang violence, still largely confined to Belize City, is a significant contributor to the high murder rate. There were 125 murders recorded for 2011, four less than 2010, likely due to the gang truce in Belize City that began in September 2011. However, even though the number of murders dipped, ending a three-year trend of new records for murders, the murder rate actually increased slightly, due to a slight decrease in the population. A government of Belize (GOB)-supported gang truce was agreed to in September 2011 and dramatically reduced the intentional homicides during the final four months of 2011. There were also highly-publicized raids in known gang areas by the Gang Suppression Unit (GSU). There were only nine murders reported in the 100 days following the truce. The gang truce will undoubtedly have an impact on violent crime in Belize City in 2012.   

In 2011, Belize experienced the spread of violent crime to the north and west of the country. Previously, the majority of violent crime largely occurred in the poor and violent southwest of Belize City. The remainder of the country had remained generally immune to the shocking levels of crime confined to the geographically tiny community in Belize City. The spread of violent crime to the north and west has been a significant development. There were 14 murders reported in the north in Orange Walk and 17 murders reported in Belmopan, San Ignacio, and Benque in the west. Several murders have been linked to home invasions, which are a permanent fixture of criminal life in Belize. An American businessman, Lawrence Johnson, was brutally murdered in Cayo in November 2011 during a home invasion. 

Belize has also become the popular destination of choice for fugitives fleeing the criminal justice system in the United States. In 2011, 14 fugitives were located, arrested, and expelled to the United States by the Regional Security Office in joint operations with the Special Branch of the Belize Police Department.

Criminal perpetrators remain emboldened and are not deterred by the risk of confrontation. 

Belmopan City, home to the U.S. Embassy since 2006, located in the Cayo District in the center-west of the country, experienced increases in violent criminal activity. Two separate diplomatic missions were targets of break-ins. Local Chinese-owned businesses were also the target of violent crimes. A local restaurant, located less than a mile from the U.S. Embassy, was robbed in November, and the storeowner was shot. Another storeowner in Belmopan killed a known Belize-city gang member as the perpetrator fled his store after robbing it. These crimes are taking place in a city with a population of just 13,000.

The majority of crimes are “property” crimes such as robbery, theft, burglary, muggings, and pick-pocketing. In 2011, Belize experienced a reported increase in rapes, burglaries, and regular thefts. However, there was a decrease in reported robberies. Often decreases are attributed to simply a lack of reporting of these crimes.

Criminal perpetrators regularly carry firearms although the number of firearms seized in gun-related crimes declined by about four percent in 2011. In the past several years, Belize has had multiple incidents of high-powered military precision firearms falling into the hands of criminal elements. There have also been credible reports of gang members acquiring and using grenades in attacks in 2008 and 2009. There were no attacks involving grenades in 2011, but local law enforcement is fearful that grenades may still be in the arsenals of some of the larger, more established gangs. In October 2011, the most significant incident to date occurred when 42 weapons were stolen from the Belize Defense Force (BDF) headquarters in Ladyville. These weapons included M-16 and M4 rifles along with 9mm pistols. Besides a significant embarrassment to the BDF, this incident represented a clear and present danger to all military, local law enforcement, and citizens of Belize. To date, only six weapons have been recovered. In 2009, a Belize Defense Force (BDF) M16 was stolen by a BDF member and sold to a well-known drug dealer in Belize, who was apprehended in February 2010 in possession of the weapon.     

Many of the safest places in Belize are the off-shore cayes (islands), which are some of the major tourist destinations. While crime still exists on the cayes, it is much less frequent and generally non-violent. Crime on the cayes is generally petty and crimes of opportunity that target tourists or more affluent long-term residents. 

Much of the reported crime in Belize occurs on the main land, and 2011 saw a rash of violent criminal incidents in the north and west of Belize. In January 2011, a Swedish tourist was robbed at gunpoint in Belize City. She had cash and her passport stolen. In September 2011, an American female was raped and robbed after bicycling on the Stann Creek district highway. In August 2011, an American female was robbed and briefly held hostage in her home in the Cayo district by local men who stole nearly $6,000 worth of jewelry and electronics. 

Belize offers an immense variety of tourist destinations, many of which are located in remote parts of the country. The easy pace found in Belize can lull one into forgetting that criminals will work wherever and whenever it is to their advantage. Tourists have been robbed while visiting archeological sites, and occasional violent crimes have occurred at resort areas on both mainland Belize and the cayes. Illicit activities in remote areas can quickly involve the innocent tourist. It is prudent to assume that safety procedures and requirements at tourist destinations are not up to U.S. standards and careful consideration given prior to engaging in the activity.

Public transportation can be problematic and unreliable. Taxi stands or plazas are located throughout major cities and villages and can be contacted by phone. Certain basic rules and precautions apply. Do not accept rides in vehicles that are not authorized taxis (taxis have green license plates, but perhaps few other markings), and do not ride in a taxi with occupants than just the driver. Taxis should generally only be hailed from reputable locations such as hotels and restaurants. It is always preferable to travel with an acquaintance. There have been reports of sexual assault on unaccompanied females committed by taxi drivers. Public buses in Belize are prone to safety and security problems and should be avoided. Buses are in poor operating condition, and drivers are often observed exceeding the speed limits and passing other vehicles at locations where it is unsafe to do so. Water taxis are often overcrowded and lack basic safety equipment.

Road Safety

Road conditions are generally very poor at best and hazardous at worst. The primary highways, Northern, Western, and Hummingbird (southern) highways, are in generally better condition (paved) than most roads, but these are still very narrow, two-lane highways. The highways are infrequently lit, only occasionally have shoulders, and driving can be very dangerous, especially after dusk and during the frequent rain. These major thoroughfares are the only means to transit the country aside from a small plane. Consequently, pedestrians and bicyclists utilize the same roads day and night as buses, trucks, and cars. To better illustrate the unpredictability of these hazards; in January 2012, a pedestrian was observed pushing an individual in a wheelchair along the middle of the road heading northeast to Belize City. 

It is highly recommended to avoid driving on the major highways in Belize after dark. The lack of lighting, hazards along the roadways, passing vehicles, along with local buses driving above the recommended speed limits all can create a potentially deadly situation. In 2011, there were several pedestrians and motorists killed at night along the highways. Buses were a major cause of some of the more spectacular accidents. The lack of emergency medical care only exacerbates the importance of exercising extreme caution when operating vehicles at night. The Belizean judicial system assumes any driver who strikes a pedestrian or bicyclist to be at fault until proven otherwise. Children, adults, bicyclists, and animals will cross the roadways with little or no notice given and without looking to ensure the path is clear. 

Stray dogs also wander freely in close proximity to the many small villages along the roads. These are a significant hazard, and motorists have been killed in vehicle accidents while trying to avoid these animals.  

Defensive driving is a critical necessity to navigate hazardous road conditions, which are only amplified during bad weather, and the poor driving habits of many local nationals and other permanent residents. Local drivers often use turn signals to signify different vehicle movements. For example, a left-hand turn signal in a vehicle ahead of you on the highway may be a signal for your car to pass on the left or it could indicate a left-hand turn by the vehicle ahead, or it could indicate a U-turn. Drivers should always use maximum follow distances to allow plenty of time to react to the unexpected.

Due to the absence of stoplights in most parts of the country, speed bumps are utilized to control speeds, especially in and around small villages and population centers. There are several different signs that indicate speed bumps, and some speed bumps are not marked at all. Speed bumps can be a significant hazard to vehicles and occupants, as they tend to be very large and damaging to vehicles that hit them too hard. Drivers should always be on the lookout for speed bumps, especially during dusk, dawn, and night driving and should also beware that vehicles will often slam on their breaks unexpectedly to try and avoid hitting a speed bump. 

Traffic circles are used to take the place of traffic lights, similar to many other parts of the world. At traffic circles, you must yield to exiting traffic in the circle before proceeding and then signal before you exit to alert the vehicles behind you.  

The Belize police regularly operate checkpoints, especially in and around Belize City and Belmopan. All personnel, including diplomats should stop at these checkpoints and fully cooperate with police. The police may ask you for a form of ID, which you should produce. Often times, the focus of the checkpoints is to ensure that the vehicles are properly insured or to spot-check the window tinting on cars to ensure that it is within the legal limit. There were no reported incidents in 2011 of false checkpoints or extortion of vehicles passing through these checkpoints.

Political Violence

Historical Perspective

Political violence does not regularly occur, though there have been significant incidents in the past. In the run-up to the municipal elections of 2012, there were no reported violent demonstrations. There have been a few peaceful protests where individuals were observed openly drinking and smoking what appeared to be marijuana, but the assemblies were without incident.

Regional Terrorism and Organized Crime

Overall, corruption, human smuggling and trafficking, the drug trade, money laundering, and organized gang activity remain significant criminal problems. Additionally, in many cases, these organized criminal organizations operate beyond the ability of the police to disrupt them. The prosecution of perpetrators is problematic based upon issues endemic to the Belize judicial system. 

Civil Unrest

The government requires a license to hold a protest or demonstration, requested from the police department 24 hours before the start. There are no indications of sentiments that could lead to unrest, and Americans are normally only affected by an Embassy Emergency Message that directs them to avoid the area of the demonstration.

The last protest of note was in 2009 by cane farmers against Belize Sugar Industries in Orange Walk that turned violent. Approximately 1,000 protesters successfully shut down the Northern Highway, effectively severing the northern districts from the remainder of the country and disrupting the main artery of vehicular traffic, commerce, and trade with Mexico. The demonstration culminated in a violent clash between the Belize Police Department and the protesters. The violence resulted in the death of one protester, who was shot and killed by the police, and injuries to two Belize police officers and eight protesters. The government intervened in the dispute and negotiated an end to the demonstration. 

Post-Specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

The most likely natural disaster is a hurricane, and ever since Hurricane Hattie destroyed much of Belize City in 1961, Belize pays particular attention to tropical storms in the western Caribbean. June through November is hurricane season in the western Caribbean, with the September to October period the most likely time for tropical storms and hurricanes. Belize has very limited capability to meet such a disaster, and the vulnerability is well known. Although the Belize National Emergency Management Office (NEMO) has analyzed Belize’s vulnerability to a hurricane, preparations in response to their reports remain insufficient. Hurricane shelters exist along the coastline, but limited emergency food and water supplies would be overwhelmed by the high number of potential shelter seekers. Waterways require frequent dredging, so flooding would be exacerbated. Belize may have an evacuation plan in principal, but practical implementation would likely be difficult at best. In October 2010, Hurricane Richard slammed into the coast, resulting in power outages in 65 percent of the country, extensive flooding, and the blockage of the major highways. The majority of severe damage to property did not occur on the coast of Belize but rather inland in the Cayo District. 

Minor earthquakes have occurred, notably in southern Belize. The most recent severe earthquake was a 7.1 magnitude quake with an epicenter 140 miles off the coast of Belize and Honduras in May 2009. Electricity in the southern portion of the country was temporarily knocked out; however, damage was minimal, and there were no reported casualties. Several minor after-shocks were felt for several weeks after with minimal effect. 

There are no active volcanoes in Belize. 

Because Belize is tropical and has regular rainfall, clogged drainage and waterways combined with urban growth lead to frequent flooding of roadways, even during the “dry” season. Flooding has not been disastrous, but a severe storm or hurricane will cut off vehicular movement in many coastal and inland areas.

There is a significant risk of forest fires at the end of the dry season, typically April and May. 

Much of Belize is protected rainforest, and there is always the threat of attack by indigenous animals. In 2010, an American and Belizean were killed by jaguars in separate incidents. 

Kidnapping

To date, Belize is the only country in Central America to have no kidnapping of tourists or foreigners for ransom.

Police Response

The Belize police work very closely with the Regional Security Office, but their ability to respond to crime is very limited. The police force is understaffed and poorly equipped. There are severe shortages of typical law enforcement equipment, including vehicles, weapons, and handcuffs. Investigations are slow and limited by bureaucratic, administrative, and resource deficiencies. The GOB takes crimes against visitors very seriously; however, the aforementioned chronic deficiencies seriously hamper their ability to respond, investigate, and generate a successful prosecution of offenders. The police and emergency telephone lines are continually busy, and contacting police is often difficult. Response times from police, should you be able to contact them, can be very slow. In the past, it was not uncommon for a police officer to ask a complainant to pick them up and take them to the scene of the crime. Due to significant resource support through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the Belize Police Force are receiving more equipment and training that will allow them to better carry out their law enforcement responsibilities.

If you are a victim of a crime, contact the nearest local police station:

Belize City: +501-207-2222 
Belmopan: +501-802-2221
Benque Viejo: +501-803-2038
Caye Caulker: +501-226-0179
Corozal: +501-402-2022
Dangriga: +501-522-2022
Independence: +501-523-2022
Orange Walk: +501-322-2022
Punta Gorda: +501-722-2022
San Ignacio: +501-804-2022 
San Pedro: +501-206-2022

How to Handle Incidents of Police Detention or Harassment 

Reports of police harassment or extortion attempts of American tourists are rare; however, expatriates have reported occurrences. Any American citizen who feels he or she is being harassed should contact the American Citizen Services unit (ACS) at the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan. American officers maintain a list of local attorneys that can be provided upon request.

Medical Emergencies

There are nine hospitals in Belize. All medical clinics treat only outpatient cases and are not staffed to handle emergencies. Belize City is the center for medical care in Belize with the two major hospitals considered adequate by U.S. standards and equipped to handle serious medical problems: Belize Medical Associates and Karl Huesner Memorial Hospital. Medical facilities outside Belize City are not adequate to handle serious medical conditions, such as cardiac problems, and often fail to meet basic U.S. standards. Travelers should bring any legally-prescribed drugs that they may need during their visit. Additionally, there are reasonably well-stocked pharmacies in most major towns and tourist destinations, and prescriptions are not required. 
 
Belize Medical Associates 
5791 St. Thomas Street, Kings Park, Belize City
Tel # +501-223-0303
 
Karl Huesner Memorial Hospital
Princess Margaret Drive, Belize City
Tel # +501-223-1548

Air Ambulance Services

Those with serious or life-threatening problems who need to be evacuated to the United States should contact Air Ambulance Professionals. Medical expenses in Belize can be costly. It is recommended to check with your insurance company to verify you have sufficient coverage before traveling to Belize. 
 
Air Ambulance Professionals
Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport
Hanger 36B 1535 S. Perimeter Road
Ft. Lauderdale, FL  33309
Tel:  800-752-4195; 954-491-0555
Fax:  954-491-6114
www.airambulanceprof.com

For those traveling in the more remote areas of Belize or to the off-shore cayes, they should take note that emergency transportation to adequate medical facilities may be problematic. Astrum Helicopters provides MEDEVAC flights in coordination with the Belize Emergency Response Team (BERT). For emergency response and transportation, BERT is Belize’s only qualified provider.

Astrum Helicopters
Mile 3.5 Western Highway
Belize City, Belize
Office: +501-222-5100
Fax: +501-222-5105
www.astrumhelicopters.com

Belize Emergency Response Team (BERT)
P.O. Box 1370
1675 Sunrise Avenue
Coral Grove Area
Belize City, Belize, Central America
Tel: +501-223-3292
Cell: +501-610-3890
Fax: +501-223-0549
Email: info@bertbelize.org 

Tips on How to Avoid Becoming a Victim

Criminal acts, including extremely violent acts, can and do happen in all areas of Belize, to include Belize City and tourist destinations such as San Pedro and Caye Caulker. When these acts happen in some of the more remote areas, there is little protection or assistance available for the victims. It is generally preferable that you comply with a robber’s instructions. It is always best to leave valuables and large amounts of cash locked up in a secure location. 

Break-ins and vandalism of automobiles do occur. Do not leave items visible inside your parked car, and keep important items out of reach of outsiders while driving. 

While Belize is generally a friendly and accommodating society, females should be particularly attentive to risks associated with being in public alone or in the company of only one other female. Sexual harassment is commonplace, and sexual assaults occur regularly. Move about in groups, staying in well-lit areas, avoiding short-cuts, and maintaining good situational awareness. 

Visitors and residents should always be aware of the presence of criminals who prey on targets of opportunity. Visitors should practice sound personal security techniques. Keep a low profile, and avoid wearing expensive or flashy jewelry, especially when in open markets. Do not dress in a manner that displays or indicates wealth. 

Beware of pickpockets. Men should keep their wallet and cash in their front pants pocket. A woman's purse should be small and held closely in front of her. Avoid carrying large amounts of cash, and do not flash large amounts of money when paying a bill. Make sure your credit card is returned to you after each transaction. 

Buses and cars do not yield to pedestrians. Although walking or exercising in most Belizean cities or towns after dark has not been problematic, this practice is not recommended in Belize City, especially for women. Make a note of emergency telephone numbers and locations you may need: police, fire, your hotel, and the U.S. Embassy. In all situations, if confronted by criminals, resistance may provoke a more violent response. If you are confronted, do not fight back -- give up your valuables as they are not worth your life. 

Keep your hotel door secured at all times. Meet visitors in the lobby. Do not leave money and other valuables in your hotel room while you are out. Use the hotel safe, if available. If you are out late at night, let someone know when you expect to return. If you are alone, do not get on an elevator if there is a suspicious-looking person inside. Read the fire safety instructions in your hotel room. Know how to report a fire, and be sure you know where the nearest fire exits and alternate exits are located. Count the doors between your room and the nearest exit; this could be a lifesaver if you have to crawl through a smoke-filled corridor. 

Prior to road travel, ensure that your vehicle is in good operating condition, paying particular attention to the engine, tires, brakes, head and tail lights, spare tire and jack, horn, and fluid levels. Particularly on trips to remote areas, try to travel in tandem with other vehicles, and advise someone of your travel plans, including anticipated arrival and departure times and contact numbers. The following items are recommended for extended road trips:
 
Cellular telephone with charger (although some areas in Belize lack coverage)
A spare tire
Potable water
Non-perishable food items
First Aid kit
Fire extinguisher
Emergency tool kit
Jumper cables
Compressed air tire pump
Flares/reflectors

If your tire is mounted on the outside of the vehicle, secure it in place with a chain and padlock or similar device. If this is not possible, remove the spare tire and leave it at home, reinstalling it only for extended trips outside the city. Replace one lug nut on each wheel with a specially-keyed bolt that locks or can only be removed with a special attachment to the tire iron. 

Parking on the street can rarely be avoided. If left overnight, ensure you park in an area that is well lit, with security guards (most hotels have security guards) and within view of the location of your visit. Use of a car alarm is a necessary precaution in deterring vehicle thefts and thefts of interior contents. Theft of small, easily pilfered items is a common crime, as is the theft of car sound systems, so keep your vehicle sterile, storing anything that would entice a thief out of plain view.

Areas to Avoid

It is recommended that travel to the south side of Belize City be minimized to official business only and personal trips be avoided. 

Further Information

The Embassy is open for regular business Monday through Friday, 8:00 am to 12:00 pm and 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The Embassy is closed on American and Belizean holidays. Americans are encouraged to register with the American Citizens Service Office, located in the Consular Section.

Embassy Address (physical location):

U.S. Embassy Belmopan
4 Floral Park Road
Belmopan, Belize

Mailing address:

U.S. Embassy Belmopan
P.O. Box 497
Belmopan, Belize

Websites:

http://belize.usembassy.gov/
http://www.facebook.com/Belize.USEmbassy
http://travel.state.gov/
http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_1055.html
http://www.osac.gov/

Email:

BelmopanRSO@state.gov 

Embassy Phone Numbers (Belize Country Code: 501):

Main Embassy Number: 822-4011
Main Embassy Fax: 822-4012
Embassy Duty Officer: 610-5030
Regional Security Office: 822-4011 ext. 4105
Economic/Political Section: 822-4011 ext. 4197
Embassy Nurse: 822-4011 ext. 4286
American Citizen Services: 822-4011 ext. 4219/4209

OSAC Country Council

Belize has an active OSAC Country Council. Interested parties can contact the council through the Embassy’s Regional Security Officer at +501-822-4011 ext 4105 or go to http://www.osac.gov/ and search for Belmopan.